From ‘Empowerment’ to Releasing the Power
Follow your wings. Find your voice. Reimagine the Future
Inside this issue:
Activating Agency or Nudging?
Two ideas in development – activating agency of citizens, in other words releasing the power within citizens, and using “nudges” to change their behavior – seem diametrically opposed in spirit: activating latent agency at the ground level versus top-down designs that exploit people’s behavioral responses. Yet both start from a psychological focus and a belief that changes in people’s behavior can lead to “better” outcomes, for the individuals involved and for society. So how should we think of these contrasting sets of ideas? When should each approach be used?
By way of context, in May 2018, I joined a conference and workshop in Cerrito, Paraguay devoted to reducing poverty, hosted by the Fundación Paraguaya, a social enterprise with a mission to reduce poverty through microfinance, education and social change. The centerpiece of the workshop was the approach to tackling poverty embodied in the Poverty Stoplight, a multi-dimensional, participatory poverty diagnostic tool, developed by the Fundación, now used by many nonprofits, and some private firms, around the world. The essence of the Stoplight is activation of the agency of the poor themselves. This activation happens through participatory diagnosis in itself, the selection of specific goals for change, and ongoing interactions with various forms of coaches, such as microfinance agents or other front-line workers. (We at IMAGO are working with the Poverty Stoplight.)
In one session of the conference, Oscar Calvo-González, of the World Bank, gave a comprehensive summary of thinking and practice in behavioral economics. He offered examples of a range of experiments in which policies have been designed to explore how specific design tweaks can lead to different individual decisions. A famous example is whether people are given the choice of opting in or opting out in a decision—from pension plans to organ donation. When the active choice involves opting out, substantially larger fractions of participants choose to take the option (i.e. join a pension plan or an organ donation scheme). People aren’t rationally calculating actors, but work with simplified mental models, or go with the perceived social herd. Some governments have set up “nudge” units, to explore how to more effectively get citizens to change behavior and achieve better social outcomes. More notoriously, related approaches have been used to nudge voters in favored directions—as alleged in the UK’s Brexit referendum and the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Let’s compare the two approaches with respect to diagnostic frame, practice and ethics.
The common ground is recognition that people use short-cuts for decision-making, in ways that can hurt their own interests. In both approaches, there is an emphasis that decision-making is particularly tough for poor people, given the sheer weight of daily problem-solving. In behavioral economics one core idea is that we have limited mental “bandwidth” and this form of scarcity hampers decision-making. However, in the “agency” tradition, there is much more emphasis on unearthing and working with the origins of the prevailing mental models, with respect to social exclusion, stigmatization, and the typically unequal economic and cultural relations with respect to more powerful groups in a society. One approach works more with symptoms, the other with root causes.
Implications for practice.
The two approaches on display in Cerrito both concern social gains, and both involve a role for an external actor. But here the contrast is sharp. In the “nudge” approach the external actor is a beneficent technocrat, trying out alternative offers to poor (or non-poor) people to improve outcomes. A vivid example is alternative messages to tax payers in Guatemala, that induce varying improvements in tax payments. In the “agency” approach the essence of the interaction is between a front-line worker and an individual or family, with a co-created diagnosis and plan, designed around goals and specific actions that the poor person chooses. This is akin to what anthropologist Arjun Appadurai termed increasing the “capacity to aspire,” and can extend to greater engagement in civic and political life.
In both approaches, ethics is central. As implicated in the “nudging for social good as opposed to electoral gain,” some form of ethical regulation is surely needed. In “action to activate agency,” the central ethical issue is of maintaining equality in design between activist and citizen, and explicit owning of any decisions.
What does this imply?
To some degree this is a question of domain of action. Nudging is most appropriate in a program for which there is a fully supported political and social program, and the issue is how to make it work (as in paying taxes). The agency approach has a broader ambition, but starts from domains that are potentially within an individual’s control once the sources of “ineffective” or inhibited behavior are tackled, including via front-line interactions with public or private actors.
In IMAGO we have firmly chosen to work in the domain of activating agency, the inborn potential of individuals. We believe we need to turn the way we think about development upside down — shifting the approach to one in which the poor get to define and design. That is the difference between nudging (recognizing the behavioral) and activating latent agency (disrupting the system to effect transformation). Finally, it is noteworthy that behavioral economics has built an impressive range of specific evidence from experiments in the past decade or so. While there is a wealth of material on inequalities or suppression of agency, more evidence is needed on what kind of public action is effective.
Joining forces to turn poverty upside down
The IMAGO team is just back from a week in Paraguay. Fundación Paraguaya, one of our wonderful clients, hosted the Cerrito 2018 conference, which brought together some of the best of the development crowd I have seen in a long time.
For two days, around 200 people from all over the world got together to learn from each other: the common objective was to turn poverty upside down. We all shared the conviction that we need to stop looking at poverty as a problem that can be solved from the top-down, to a challenge that requires social innovation. We met many fellow travelers coming from different countries and organizations (Argentina, South Africa, Central America, Singapore, Switzerland, Philippines, Chile, US, UK, Paraguay, China, Colombia, and many others). The common thread was our realization, after years of work, that the only way to eliminate poverty is to start with the poor both in the diagnosis and in the design of the solutions. To my surprise, there was also a group of international organizations with the same view. This was beautifully articulated by Ana Botero, head of social innovation at CAF (Corporacion Andina de Fomento, a development bank owned primarily by Latin American and Carribean countries), who set the tone during the opening session about the need to change the way we think about the poor.
This is probably the most important social innovation of our time; a change in mindset by both the organizations that have the money and the organizations at the Base of the Pyramid that have the capacity to release the power for change from within the poor and disenfranchised communities they serve.
At Cerrito, we met many partners of the Poverty Stoplight that are using this inclusive methodology as an instrument that transforms, that makes visible the invisible. We heard many stories about the impact of the Stoplight, from Mexico to South Africa. For me, the most moving was Juan Chalbaud, a missionary from Monte Adentro, who uses the Stoplight in remote areas of El Chaco in Argentina were people hardly know their neighbors and fear they are enemies. These families are so hungry to connect that each Stoplight question takes a long time. Each answer turns into a story that helps integrate their experience. “Cuando una pregunta abre una herida, se hace un silencio y se abre un camino. Si uno lo sabe acompanar puede empezar a sanar.” (“When a question opens a wound, there is a silence…and a path opens up. If one knows how to accompany, this can be the beginning of the healing.”)
The Stoplight and the conversation around the questions opens up the possibility of change, of having a dream. And most poor families, in remote Argentina and everywhere, have ideas of possible solutions through working together as a community. The Stoplight helps them wake up to this, to internalize the discovery and visualize the change.
In August 2016, IMAGO started working with Fundación Paraguaya to scale up the Poverty Stoplight. We worked together on a vision and an ambitious strategy to scale up globally over the next five years. One year into the implementation of this strategy, there are many committed organizations implementing the Stoplight in Africa, Asia, Latin America, U.S. and the UK. Each organization adapts the indicators to their needs, while keeping a set of core principles and indicators that ties them together, across countries and contexts. In a workshop the day before the Cerrito conference, this community spoke about how they are using the Stoplight as an accelerator for the impact of the organizations they serve in their countries. At the end of the day, the workshop participants concluded that they feel they are part of the early phases of a movement to change the way poverty is measured and understood. Powerful stuff! The IMAGO team is delighted to be part of this story.
The Missing Middle in Development
By Surili Sheth
It’s time for a change to the “empowerment” conversation. Development organizations’ programs must be evaluated on the basis of whether they enable women to increase their potential for political mobilization, such that they can create sustainable gender equality.
– Rafia Zakaria, The Myth of Women’s “Empowerment”
In IMAGO we are piloting an Integrated Identity-focused Action Research (IIAR) approach to support community-based organizations in defining problems, designing activities, and creating pathways for them to scale to mid-size. Integrated Identity-focused Action Research (IIAR) stems from three core ideas:
- The missing middle in development is represented in a dearth of mid-sized community-led organizations that can take impact to scale. Market failures, government failures, and organizational failures interact to contribute to the prevalence of the missing middle problem.
- There is a spectrum of capacities necessary to fill that missing middle along which community based organizations lie. Where they lie has to do with their organizational structures, values and identities.
- Where an organization lies on that spectrum of capacities determines whether the IIAR approach can be used to tackle the missing middle problem.
What is the missing middle in development?
As an analog to the missing middle in the private sector – a lack of small and med ium enterprises (SMEs), particularly in the developing world, or in a specific industry – the missing middle in the development sector is characterized by a dearth of mid-sized community-based organizations (CBOs). There are many CBOs operating at the grassroots, or base of the development pyramid. These CBOs developed using community norms and actions, responding to the demand to solve problems directly in their communities, and interfacing directly with those communities, making small but important changes in their locales. But at a certain point, they find it difficult to have impact at scale.
This dearth of mid-sized CBOs is not a problem if the ideas generated by the CBOs are not impactful at scale (and theorizing and measuring this is important). However, it is a problem when they could be impactful, and potentially able to benefit more people, but barriers to scale prevent them from doing so. These barriers come from a lack of access to the experiences and resources found at the top of the development pyramid (governments, aid agencies, institutional donors, and foundations) due to a variety of failures. Interactions between market, government, and organizational failures characterize the cause(s) of the missing middle in development.
What types of CBOs are there, and how can they fill the missing middle?
There are many community-based organizations working in development. How do we know which ones can be effectively scaled? IMAGO has come to better understand the sphere of women’s entrepreneurship, empowerment, and income generation in India over the last four years, engaging with organizations like SEWA/RUDI, SRIJAN, and Transform Rural India to understand the exact nature of the missing middle barriers faced by CBOs. Through workshops, one-on-one sessions with CBO members and their boards, and discussions with organizations at the top of the development pyramid, we have come up with a paradigm that we are now piloting.
We think of CBOs and programs (broadly defined) in the space, as falling into three broad categories:
On the left side of the spectrum are “Type A” organizations – those that are already well-equipped for dealing with missing middle challenges. This, however, is very rare. These organizations are systematically focused on solving problems of the poor, but from the beginning have built organizational processes aimed at achieving efficiency and scale. They have specifically planned for it from the beginning, building both culture and systems with scale in mind. Over time, however, these organizations can become large and bureaucratic and face some similar problems to government hierarchies, lacking the anchor of being owned by their members. More identity-focused work can be helpful.
On the right end of the spectrum are “Type C” organizations. These are government and aid or corporate social responsibility-funded programs aimed at building and scaling federated organizational structures. These institutions are aimed at channeling government-designed welfare or public or private market linkage programs. These are typically examples of what Mansuri and Rao (2012) refer to as “induced participation.” Such programs are mobilized from the top-down, have large, layered and hierarchical bureaucracies, and though they have members embedded deep in communities, the central drive for their activities is not motivated through joint social values.
In the middle of the spectrum are “Type B” organizations – those initiated by bottom-up mobilization and motivated by strong values permeating throughout the organizational culture, but with latent energy and nascent organizational structures and systems for scale. These exact characteristics indicate that the organization is ready to build on its systems and activate latent agency to overcome some of the missing middle tensions.
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“Type B” organization characteristics also indicate the potential for an external agent like IMAGO to be a catalyst, using the IIAR approach with the organization to spark change.
A “Type B” organization – the Rural Distribution Network (RUDI)
The RUDI Multi Trading Company Ltd (RUDI) was formed in the early 2000s as the first for-profit social enterprise owned and operated by SEWA, the largest women’s informal labor union in India, comprising over 1.7 million members. The agro-based rural distribution network brings together farmer producer organizations (FPOs) and the women’s movement, with the triplicate aims of providing direct market access for small and marginal farmers by eliminating the layer of middlemen, providing employment for thousands of women in rural India as market agents, and providing food security to the families of SEWA members in villages.
Over the last four years, IMAGO has worked with RUDI and SEWA to understand their structures, values, tensions, and problem-solving processes.
The next article in this series will cover how IMAGO works with RUDI to both make and pilot the IIAR approach, activating latent agency and co-creating systems for scale, demonstrating our approach for “Type B” organizations.
Building Government’s Reach:
State Capacity Development to Solve Problems
Being from a developing country, I was a bit skeptical of the power of government action. The absence of adequate government services made me doubt the possibility of having an impact from the public sector. At the time, my country was going through ten years of political and economic instability. During that period, we had seven presidents, three of which were publicly elected and didn´t finish their constitutional mandate due to popular dissatisfaction. Talking about state capability seemed like a utopia. That feeling is probably not dissimilar to those in other places. In fact, the numbers elsewhere could be even more discouraging.
The State Capability Index 2012 measured the state capacity of 102 countries and the ability to increase their initial capacity in a 16-year period. Only eight countries were classified as having ‘strong’ capability. Twice as many, 17, were considered ‘fragile’ states; and since the population of these fragile states is much bigger, half a billion people lives will be affected by the inefficiencies of these governments. At their current pace of capacity growth, it will take ‘fragile states’ basically ‘forever’ to reach an average capability. But even for those in better conditions, it could take hundreds or even thousands of years to get to an average level of capacity. There is an urgency to act and a need to do things differently.
There is no replacement for the state, therefore improving the capacity of governments to function is not an option but an imperative. Even when financial resources are not a constraint, a weak state won’t be able to effectively take advantage of those resources for the wellbeing of the majority of their population. There is sometimes the belief that substituting the ‘inefficient state’ with international organizations, the market or nonprofits working in parallel to the government, could be a solution. But even if that proves true in the short run, it is not a sustainable solution in the long run. When the patch measures implemented by those nongovernmental organizations finish, we are back to zero, with a non-functioning state unable to provide services to its population.
Haiti is a good illustration of the fact that there is no substitute for the state. Before the 2010 earthquake, Haiti was already the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and had very weak state capacity. After the shock, close to 6 billion dollars in official aid was disbursed to Haiti. This is almost equivalent to the country’s entire GDP at the time. Half of those contributions were given to NGOs. The government received only one percent of humanitarian aid and between 15-21 percent of long-term relief aid. “NGOs and private contractors became a parallel state more powerful than the government itself,” according to a 2012 policy paper by the Center for Global Development. These nongovernmental organizations and contractors provided infrastructure and social services with very limited accountability.
In capital investment, the International Development Bank (IDB) became the major donor after the U.S., with 1.2 billion dollar grants between 2011 and 2015. In evaluation of their country strategy in Haiti, the Office of Evaluation and Oversight at the IDB acknowledges that, like other international organizations, resources were not systematically programmed in the country’s budget planning process. While it could have been necessary at a certain point, the report suggests that the new five-year country strategy focus on the country’s structural problems, like building Haiti’s long-term institutional capacity.
There is no other organization that has the capacity of a government to impact the lives of millions of people. When public policies are designed and implemented in a responsible and honest way, the power for transformation is huge. To achieve that, as in any organization, public institutions also require a constant search for efficiency and innovation, and assessment to ensure that objectives and results are achieved. Perhaps it is true that the best way to create successful governments is by solving problems. However, that also requires building the state’s capacity within, a process of organizational transformation, to sustain the changes in the long run. IMAGO’s method of building that internal capacity has been very successful with grassroots organizations, and social enterprises. We look forward to expanding our work in the public sector and helping address the implementation challenges governments face, enabling them to achieve their full potential.
The IMAGO Magic
Using the Magician Archetype in Leadership Development
The Magician archetype is one in which an essence with substance emerges from the immaterial alchemy of a given moment. In IMAGO, we most engage the Magician in the process of co-creating with our clients trainings that require a deeper dive into organizational processes. When a team succumbs to rigid resistance, succumbs to challenging conflict, or is stunned by its own shadow dynamics, the Magician becomes a source of light in the darkness.
Much as a stage magician says “abracadabra” before turning a handkerchief into a dove, there are incantations that are essential to the work of IMAGO and seeming illusions of the eye that in this essay, we will seek to make more visible.
The Incantation: The One Breath
One of our “techniques” is the One Breath. This activity offers, on face, a simple process of dialogue that allows every team member an opportunity to speak. At the level of magic, the One Breath is quite literally inviting everyone in the circle to breathe life into the process. When conducted well, this exercise evokes an equitable tone and sacred bond in which what is shared becomes a gift for the group, constructing the reality of the work to come with every voice that is offered. The close of this process asks, “What did we say?” as the circle is asked to name its own themes and begin to listen as one with one another.
The Cauldron: Forging the Container
Once the circle is formed, the magic continues in forging the container for what is to come. The role of the Magician is to figure out how much “heat” is needed for a set of individuals to bring their admixture of perspectives together into a stew palatable for all parties present. Too hot and conflict becomes the focus rather than the substance for further action. Too tepid and there is insufficient emotional spice to make the experience meaningful or sustainable beyond the moment. Too cold and the process will leave participants the same—cold and indifferent about any outcome that they have gone through the motion to develop.
The Ingredients: Preparing for the Agenda
The Magician must work to forge a container that holds with the proper level of warmth. The heat must be sufficient for this stew to have a different kind of texture and aroma than any one person could have brought on their own. Extending this metaphor, the Magician seeks to create the conditions where the unique ingredients of all parties can blend in new and creative proportions. In practical terms, this process involves setting a mutually created agenda, determining expectations for outcomes, agreeing on guidelines for conversations, outlining themes to explore, and determining methodologies to use.
The Alchemy: Entering the Work
In the IMAGO approach to the Magician realm, a contrast is drawn between the activities that bring alchemy to the team and those that help develop technical plans for strategy action. In the case of alchemy, our work using our Magician and that of the team, is to work with the adaptive challenges faced by them. This work is in the spaces and places where there are no easy readily recognizable solutions or pathways to address the dilemmas faced by an organization. While the particular approach to the consultative process in these areas vary, what is invariable is an effort to invite the team to connect, sometimes anew, to its passion and purpose.
Another of our “techniques” is the Flame Analysis, where much attention is given to exploring the identity and tone of a team. While the need to determine the more technical structures and actions is acknowledged, this more immaterial focus brings together hardened positions, hidden conflicts, silenced perspectives, and deep cultural practices so that an organization can once more reflect upon itself. This approach is often accompanied by an appreciative inquiry orientation whereby an effort is made to identify the strengths, capacities and successes of a team. Through reaching consensus on what makes their work “work” and releasing some of the storm within themselves by reflection, what then crystallizes is an alchemy that is at once precious and substantial. The potency is made more pronounced because the process is one though which each participant is given the opportunity to participate and bring their presence.
At IMAGO we are beginning to document and catalog the activities we employ to invite this alchemy. While some of our processes are adapted from other sources, many are evoked “real time” through the engagement with client partners. Our challenge going forward is to determine, by turning these activities into “step-by-step” modules, whether the magic remains when placed in the hands of the sorcerer’s apprentice.
The Return: Sustaining the Learning
At IMAGO our orientation toward helping organizations move to scale has an internal and external component. The elements that can be measured, evaluated, easily communicated, and readily replicated are a part of our technical training. Through survey work, business canvasses, dashboards, and the like, we help teams forge action plans and timelines to monitor their progress and gauge their success.
However, we recognize that in order for the work of transformation to be successfully sustained, other primary archetypal processes are often needed. The balance of the masculine and the feminine for a particular organization requires exploration in light of whatever plan is developed. Similarly, we find it to be essential to discover what blend of sovereign, lover and warrior energies are present on teams alongside the magician.
The Return is the close of a process where the Magician has been present, ending where the process began with the One Breath. This time, the One Breath is used to name the learning that has come from the time together in this sacred space. Team members are also invited to “give breath” to their commitments for action, sharing with the circle where they will take individual responsibility for bringing their unique element of the alchemy into the work of the organization. In some instances, where the work is ongoing or the process has been a certain quality of depth, the One Breath also involves the companion process, the One Word. In the latter process, the magic comes in inviting the team members to reflect upon their learning and how they will seek to take it forward. They are then invited to “feel into” one word that will have the quality of reminding them of their personal learning and their commitment to action. The One Word is the setting of the intention to return to the organization to make it so.
Voices from the Field: Can Anyone Hear Us?
This cry for help is the name of a book that has inspired a generation of researchers and scholars who seek to understand in a profound way the core elements of poor people´s definition of poverty. The research was published by the World Bank in 2000 by a team led by Deepa Narayan. It is based on 60,000 interviews of people living in poverty in 60 countries. Nothing like it had been done before nor has been done since.
In trying to dig deeper into the mindset and emotions of IMAGO’s clients and how they perceive their lives, we reached for this notable study. The voices of those quoted carry centuries of humiliation, shame, vulnerability and despair. And yet the perception of their own lives lights up at the promise of making it better, no matter how many times they have tried. They know through experience that only with organizations of their own will they be able to negotiate with governments, NGOs, traders and local officials to build better conditions for their children and their communities.
The idea of this post is not academic nor even educational. We simply thought that by sharing the many dimensions of being poor in the voices of those with lived experiences, we can tap into the innate forces of change that so closely align with IMAGO´s vision. We know our readers, grassroots organizations and policy makers in the countries in which we work, will be as moved as we are, and thus go out there to amplify these voices, energizing more and more people around the world to make a difference.
It is with great hope, compassion and motivation that we bring you these quotes. It is, for us, a way of saying “Yes, we hear you.”
Don´t ask me what poverty is because you have met it inside my house. Look at the house and count the number of holes, look at the clothes I am wearing. Look at everything and write what you see. What you see is poverty. (Kenya)
From the Blog: Being a Buddha Fellow
An ambitious and innovative initiative of Self-Reliant Initiatives Through Joint Action (SRIJAN) is the launch of the Buddha Fellowship. Graduates of the prestigious India Institute of Management (IIM) are invited to apply for a two-year program that fosters leadership and entrepreneurship to address issues in the development sector. There are 11 Buddha Fellows in the inaugural class. The program has already received media attention with a recent article touting how these Fellows have given up “high-paying salaries to transform countless lives.”
IMAGO accompanies SRIJAN by offering the leadership development training component of the program at the quarterly reflections of the Fellowship. The IMAGO workshops take an “inside-out” approach based in an adaptive leadership orientation. The Fellows are supported in looking at their personal strengths and growth edges when working through thorny rural issues. Perhaps most important, the Buddha Fellows learn the skills to look beyond technical fixes to recognize when they are facing adaptive challenges for which different leadership strategies are needed.
Each quarterly training session begins in helping the Fellows increase their reflective capacity. They participate in and develop the skills to conduct effective dialogue, often needed in equal measure when working with rural farmers as well as their government counterparts. The leadership approach adapts a traits-based model where the Fellows identify the qualities that guide their action—and where they are challenged and need further development. Through case studies, simulations, and role plays the Fellows explore ways to address shared dilemmas and likely scenarios they will encounter in their development entrepreneurial efforts. The aim of these sessions is more than problem-solving, as the focus is also on building the cohort into community of practice that will eventually lead a development sector professional network that is cohesive and sustainable.
New & Next
IMAGO’s Isabel Guerrero and Michael Walton taught at “Leadership for System Change: Delivering Social Impact at Scale,” an executive education course jointly developed by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and Harvard Kennedy School. IMAGO’s session “Scaling though Markets or Government?” discussed two cases of SEs with the same goal: kids learning basic literacy and numeracy. Bridge International Academy seeks to achieve it through a private sector pathway to scale. Pratham, works in partnership with governments to scale impact. The participants were outstanding SEs from all over the world that had very different views about which is the best pathway for scaling up education. It made for a very lively debate.
IMAGO Leadership Contributes to Harvard’s Latin America Policy Journal
IMAGO’s Isabel Guerrero and Sandra Naranjo were featured in Harvard’s Spring 2018 Latin America Policy Journal. Their article, “Is Latin America Ready for the Technological Tsunami?” examining the impact of technological innovation on the job market in Latin America, contributed an important perspective to the Journal’s theme, Shifting Winds in Latin America.
IMAGO in the Field
This summer brings the chance to work intensively with SEWA and TRI in India, The Poverty Stoplight in Paraguay and the Patient Care Intervention Center in Houston. Keep an eye on our blog and make sure to watch for regular updates on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram!
Here at IMAGO, we are welcoming IMAGO’s Fellows of 2018. Our team is boosted by their incredible energy, passion and expertise and we couldn’t do this work without them! This year’s Fellows are spending several weeks embedded with IMAGO’s client partners, supporting their work toward scaling and helping us better understand the day-to-day impacts and challenges of seeking to scale promising innovations so they can improve the lives of exponentially more people.
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